If you ever want to watch a passionate and heated debate, ask a group of coffee professionals to define a flat white.
If you are a coffee professional with strong views on what a flat white is, we would recommend drinking a decaf flat white while reading this article and ensuring that children and animals are out of the flight path of any projectiles you throw in a heated moment. We cannot take responsibility for your actions or the emotional toll this article may have.
In an effort not to get cancelled, we proffer a definition that is neither too prescriptive, nor too broad. We also take into account cultural differences, discrepancies in historical accounts and provide our version, which is actually a renowned coffee historian’s referenced origin story for the flat white.
So, what is a flat white? A flat white is a coffee drink made with a single, double, triple or quadruple shot of espresso and topped with steamed, microfoam milk. Less foam than a cappuccino. That’s the definition. Some sectors of the coffee loving world insist that a flat white cannot be served in a cup bigger than 6oz. In Australia, the origin of the flat white, more on this shortly, you can find 6, 8, 12, and even 16 oz flat whites. Given this, size doesn’t matter, it is all about ratio, the ratio of espresso coffee to milk.
Speaking of coffee, what kind of coffee is used in a flat white? Coffee from many origins, processed in any number of ways and generally roasted in a manner that is suitable for espresso. The critical point is that the coffee tastes good as an espresso (see article Decoding espresso).
In the 1980’s, Melbourne newspapers were the first to report on the term flat white. Coffee historian Dr. Jonathan Morris cites these articles about local cafe operators complaining that the milk was not foaming, so no cappuccinos could be served, just flat whites. The cafes would write this on their A boards to notify their customers.
A quick google search about New Zealand being the origin of the flat white will yield different results, but this author prefers Dr Jonathan Morris’ version for 2 reasons. Firstly, because he is an Australian, secondly because Dr Morris is a professional historian who is citing historical records.
The flat white, a coffee beverage that became popular in Australia and New Zealand, has washed across the espresso coffee consuming world with the waves of antipodean diaspora who preached its merits and served it in cafes. It was also adopted by travellers who discovered it in Australia and New Zealand and imported it to their home countries. Multi-time UK barista champion Maxwell Colonna Dashwood being a case in point after spending time in Melbourne, Australia.
Understanding the Flat White can also be done in the context of what it is not. In the espresso based coffee drinks battle of the Flat White vs. Latte vs. Cappuccino, each of these drinks may seem similar, but they have distinct differences to the refined palate. If you were to do a blind tasting, smart money would bet the strongest of the coffees, ie. the one with a higher espresso ratio to milk, would be the flat white, especially if it had less foam. The milkiest of the three drinks would be a latte and the foamiest of the 3 drinks would be a cappuccino. Again, size doesn’t really matter, as long as the espresso to milk to foam ratio is maintained in each of these drinks.
However, in a nod to the purest, and in the hope of retaining some followers on the Gram, this author does prefer a classic flat white ratio of a double shot of espresso (1:2 ratio coffee to espresso or thereabouts) topped with milk gently infused with air to create a dense velvety microfoam of about 0.5cm in a cup holding a volume of around 160ml. We could call this a classic recipe and one found in some of the best cafes across the globe.
This volume of milky coffee provides comfort, lets some of the attributes of the coffee itself shine and provides about 100mg of caffeine (dose/coffee type/extraction variables dependent) to hold the caffeine headache of a specialty coffee addict at bay.
Since the flat white has more milk than espresso, we should also mention that milk quality matters. Whether it is a full fat unhomogenised jersey milk or your favourite plant based option, the milk (mylk) needs to have properties that allow it to develop and maintain foam (aka proteins and buffers). As with the type of coffee, the actual brand or type of milk you choose is up to you as long it fits these criteria: you like it, it tastes good with the coffee and it has the physico-chemical properties needed. Check out the plant based synergy tool to assess which milk is best for your coffee. Find out more about foaming properties here.
So how do you get your hands on a flat white? Try googling specialty coffee in your local town, check out an app like European Coffee trip, if you’re in Europe, or attempt to make it at home. To do this, you will need a grinder and an espresso machine with milk foaming capabilities. You will also need to have invested a minimum of 3 hours into training to be able to produce a reasonable espresso and steam well textured microfoam.
Latte art is optional but it makes for a better flat white drinking experience.
So there we have it, a comprehensive answer to the question ‘what is a flat white?’ If you have not tried one, trust the hype, it could become your new favourite espresso based coffee drink. Next time you do have one, reflect on the origin stories, contemplate your ideal ratio and tip the barista as a thank you for carrying on the legend.
Text and copy edit: Andrew Tolley
Morris, J 2019, Coffee: A global histroy; Reaktion books, London
Great PoV about Flat White!
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